We examine A level, GCSE and Btec results in England for the 2019/20 academic year and their impact.   

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We consider questions about the exam results in 2020 and consequences for 2021 exams.

GCSE and A-level Exams: Your Questions Answered

All aspects of our lives under the COVID-19 pandemic have been marked by uncertainty. Education has been hit particularly hard.  School closures have had detrimental effects on learning and mental health for most families in England. The recent announcement of exam results was no smoother. In this blog, we discuss A level, GCSE and Btec results in England for the 2019/20 academic year. This is of particular importance for A Level students, as their university places depend on their grades (UCAS points).

studying for the GCSE exams
It has not been an easy time for students, especially those who were preparing for a final exam.

What role does Ofqual play in regulating grades and why do they intervene?

The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) regulates qualifications, exams and tests in England.  They designed a system to regulate teachers’ predicted grades under the premise that teachers tend to overestimate performance. Grades are also meant to be consistent with previous years’ data.   

It is human nature to be optimistic about student progress. Teachers expect their students’ results to improve by the end of each school year when working under normal conditions. However, research shows that teachers’ predictions are usually generous. A recent analysis of schools’ predicted GCSE grades by FFT Education Datalab found that the average grade predicted by teachers in England in 2020 was higher than the average grade in 2019 in every subject.  Last year, only 20% of students applying to university met or exceeded their predicted grades.

Ofqual’s algorithm used a three-prong system. It included historic results of pupils at each school, prior student attainment, and statistical expectations of grades for each subject. The objective was to ensure that results were in line with those from the previous year.

Why were the initial results so controversial?

Controversy arose well before A level results were issued in England on Thursday, 13th August. The Scottish precedent, using the same regulatory framework as in England, featured a deluge of complaints from students, parents, teachers and head teachers. This prompted a government retraction with Nicola Sturgeon apologising to thousands of students and promising to amend grades to reflect teacher predictions.

In England, as expected, there was a similar reaction.  Many students were disheartened to find that 39% of predicted grades had been lowered, some by more than one grade.

Parents and students complained that the system did not do justice to the efforts of many who had worked hard throughout the year, but had been deprived of formal education during lockdown.   They claimed that many brilliant students would see their grades lowered simply because they came from poorly performing schools, against the better judgement of their teachers. This was called a ‘postcode lottery’. It raised the question, should a weak student in a class, who worked hard and was expected to pass, be failed simply due to the school history?

What was the government’s response to the controversy and how did people react?

Just before the A-level results were released on Thursday, 13th August, the government made rapid changes to the grading system. This was an effort to appease potential complaints, in what they described as a ‘triple lock’. Students could opt for the highest of three different assessments: their estimated grade, the result of a mock exam (as part of an appeal), or sitting an exam in October.

This measure brought a fresh surge of vitriol.  Head teachers in England referred to this last-minute arrangement by the government  as a ‘shambles’. The move was also criticised by the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, who condemned it as a ‘complete fiasco’ and asked to have it scrapped.  Critics argued that decisions should have been made and communicated in good time, mock exams are not standardised and lowering grades based on school performance is discriminatory against pupils from deprived areas.

There were many protests from students throughout the country. They deemed it unfair to have their grades brought down based on Ofqual’s algorithm and demanded a retraction like that of the Scottish government.  Many also asked for appeal fees to be waived.  However, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson initially refused to use teachers’ predicted grades as final grades in England. Boris Johnson had already stated that the system was ‘robust’ and ‘dependable’.

The government U-turn

On Monday, 17th August, the government caved in to political and student pressure. Students (A Level and GCSE) were awarded grades estimated by their teachers (Centre Assessed Grade or CAG), unless the algorithm grades were higher. Gavin Williamson said he was “incredibly sorry for the distress” caused to pupils after having to make this U-turn.

Btec results were unfortunately pulled at the last minute on the 20th of August. This was as they would also use a CAG to be in line with the GCSE and A Level adjustment.

The political fallout continued with the head of Ofqual, Sally Collier, resigning. A DfE senior civil servant, Jonathan Slater, was sacked over the ‘algorithm’.

GCSE and A Level results

For the 500,000 GCSE students, 79 % achieved a pass which is up from 70 % in 2019.  More than 27 % of students received a grade 7 or above, which is equivalent to A or A*. By comparison, 21 % of students achieved grade 7 or higher in 2019, which was the highest proportion since 2015. This means that more pupils will be eligible to study difficult subjects at A Level. A Level results can be seen below:

A Level results 2020
Comparison of A and A* for 2017 to 2020 (all ages)
A Level Results
Average number of A Levels per student, 2017 to 2020
A Level exam results infographic
Showing the relationship of this year's CAG to final grades, 2017 to 2020

What’s next for students wishing to attend university?

Once a university makes an unconditional offer it is contractually required to honour this commitment, unless the degree is cancelled.  It remains to be seen how universities will handle the surge of applicants who can now claim a place. This means some eligible students with recalculated grades will have to defer to next year. There are also many students (17 % estimated in this Guardian article) choosing to defer as they do not wish for their first year of studies to be online, leading to a possible backlog in 2021.

As an example with Cambridge University:

What about GCSE and A Level exam resits?

Due to the recent acceptance of CAGs for students, there is likely to be limited demand for exam resits. However, lockdown was disruptive for students and there may be some who would like to take a resit if their CAG was disappointing.

For students wishing to take ‘resit’ A-level exams, exams run from 5 October to 23 October. The deadline for entries is 4 September. Students will not have to pay for these resits and schools will be able to claim this expense from the government. These results will be announced on 17 December. Any student who is unhappy with their results may still appeal as usual. See A Level exam board timetable links below:

GCSE resits will take place from 2 November to 23 November. The deadline for entries is 4 October for English Language and Mathematics. The deadline for all other subjects is 18 September. GCSE results for English Language, Functional Skills, AQA Certificate and Level 3 Extended Project is 14 January 2021. All other GCSE exams results will be out on 11 February 2021.

For GCSE exam board timetables please see the following links:

What changes will there be for GCSEs and A Levels in 2021?

Concerns were raised about the lockdown challenges for certain students. These include students with no home access to the internet or to a computer, those with caring responsibilities, those most vulnerable to coronavirus and students with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). 

In light of this, various changes have been proposed for GCSE exams for 2021. These changes are to address concerns that pupils may have missed out on learning. The changes also enable certain assessments to go ahead in a way that allows for maximum social distancing, e.g. by reducing the need for group performances. A full outline of GCSE/A Level changes can be read online here, with a subject by subject summary provided by Schools Week.

Recently, Conservative MP Robert Halfon, who chairs the Commons Education Select Committee, said there was only a “50:50” chance of A-level and GCSE exams taking place next summer. Labour have also raised concerns with Shadow Education Secretary saying students starting Y11 and Y13 had a “mountain to climb”. They propose that exams should be pushed back to mid-summer (late July) to allow more catch up time.

Gavin Williamson has recently said that Ofqual is working with the education sector to decide about a potential short delay to the 2021 exam timetable.

What about Btec exams?

Students began receiving their revised exam results from Pearson on 25 August. These were adjusted in line with the GCSE and A Level changes made earlier.

How can Bright Heart help?

We recognise that it has been a frustrating and anxious time for students. We are helping students with revision tutoring sessions for Btec, GCSEs and A Levels. Our tutors will do their utmost to help students taking resits get ready in time. Our tutors are also working hard to help students taking 2021 exams catch-up, following a most disruptive year. Please get in touch for your free consultation and find out how our nurturing approach could be perfect for your child.

What has been your experience with the exam results process? We would love to hear about it on our Facebook page, or feel free to get in touch directly to chat.

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